Updated at 9:15 p.m. ET on 2019-08-05
More than a dozen foreign companies, including state-owned companies in China, have been supplying weapons and other equipment used by the Myanmar military against ethnic minorities, a U.N. fact-finding mission said on Monday, as it called for an arms sales embargo against Naypyidaw.
At least 14 weapons dealers from seven countries have provided fighter jets, armored combat vehicles, warships, missiles and launchers to Myanmar since 2016, the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said in a report released in Jakarta on Monday.
“The public record made it clear that the Tatmadaw used many of the types of arms and related equipment that these entities were providing to commit gross violations of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law,” the report said, using the local name for the Myanmar military.
It said many of the companies and states involved in the weapons deals “knew, or ought to have known, that their arms transfers could have a direct and reasonably foreseeable impact on the human rights situation in Myanmar.”
Among those firms are Russian companies Irkutsk Corp., which supplied jet trainers, and Rostec, a Moscow-based conglomerate that provided service and upgrades to Myanmar’s helicopters; and state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp., which provided missile systems, and combat-aircraft consortium Aviation Industry Corp. of China, according to the report.
The three-member mission that wrote the 111-page report urged the U.N. Security Council and member states to impose targeted sanctions against companies linked to the Myanmar military.
"Get out of bed with the military. Cut their access to independent resources," Christopher Sidoti, a former Australian human rights commissioner and one of the mission's three legal experts, told a news briefing in Jakarta. "Stop the process of enriching the generals."
“What we want to underline is that we have now come up with a clear conclusion, there’s an indisputable link between businesses and the committing of atrocities,” said Marzuki Darusman, Indonesia’s former attorney general, who served as mission chairman. “It is a report that is accompanied with a healthy dose of anger on our part.”
Since 2016, the military carried out crackdowns against civilians in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states, including the forced deportation of more than 700,000 ethnic Rohingya to Bangladesh in August 2017, the report said.
In September 2017, barely a week after Myanmar soldiers launched deadly "clearance operations" in Rakhine state, the country's military chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, invited local businesses to a donation ceremony in which more than $1.4 million was raised. The event was one of the three fundraisers that brought in a total of $10 million.
“These numbers are really the tip of the iceberg,” Sidoti said. “They’re certainly not the last word or the total picture, but they are in themselves indicators of the extent of the military’s economic involvement in Myanmar.”
The report said senior military leaders, including Hlaing and Deputy Commander-in-Chief Vice Senior Gen. Soe Win, own and influence two of Myanmar’s “most opaque enterprises,” Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) and Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC).
Last year, the mission, which was established in March 2017 by the U.N. Human Rights Council, recommended Min Aung Hlaing and Soe Win be investigated and prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Washington lifted its economic sanctions against Myanmar in 2016, but hit Hlaing, Soe Win and two other top generals with sanctions, accusing them of "gross human rights violations" over the mass killings of Rohingya Muslims. The sanctions barred the military officials from traveling to the United States.The Myanmar military has vehemently denied any wrongdoing.
Myanmar military spokesman Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said he wanted to make two points in response to the fact-finding mission’s report. He questioned the report’s relevance, as the mission was set up to investigate issues related to the Rakhine state.
His second comment focused on the businesses.
“Tatmadaw is operating these businesses officially, and had paid taxes to the state. Most of these enterprises are intended to help the welfare of Tatmadaw members,” he told Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews. “As far as I am concerned, there are militaries in many countries that owned and operated similar businesses.”
MEHL and MEC own at least 120 companies involved in a variety of businesses, including construction, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, insurance, tourism and banking.
Both companies, along with at least 26 of their subsidiaries, hold licenses for jade and ruby mining in Kachin and Shan states. International human rights and humanitarian law violations, including forced labor and sexual violence, have been perpetrated by the Tatmadaw in northern Myanmar in connection with their business activities, the report alleged.
Two companies, KBZ Group and Max Myanmar Group, helped build a barrier fence along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border “knowing that it would contribute to the suffering and anguish associated with preventing the displaced Rohingya population from returning to their homes and land,” it said.
Officials, companies respond
Max Myanmar and KBZ issued statements in response to the report.
“Max Myanmar Group categorially denies such allegations since the group and Ayeyarwaddy Foundation which undertakes CSR (corporate social responsibility) activities of the group, have been solemnly developed and adopted highest level of ‘Human Rights policy’ as one of the key guiding principles of its group activities as far as responsible business practices, transparency, discrimination, and human rights issues are concerned,” the company said.
KBZ Group said it had received and was studying the report.
“We were never contacted by the mission during the course of their investigation or the development of their report. Therefore, we are not yet in a position to comment further,” the company said.
Zaw Min Tun said the fence project began under the former military government and has since received donations for its construction.
“There are similar border fences that exist along India-Bangladesh border, as well as on U.S.-Mexico border. Our border fences are intended to protect national security and sovereignty,” he said.
Yu Lwin Aung, a member of Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), derided the report's allegations that the military had used business ties to commit rights violations, describing it as irrelevant.
“When there is a complaint about the rights violations, we investigate and report the findings to the military, so that they could take actions against the violators,” he said. “There are also examples that the military have punished the violators.”
Aung said such domestic issues should be resolved through discussions within the Myanmar government, its parliament and military.
The report, which would be presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council in September, also found that at least 15 foreign firms have joint ventures with the military, while 44 others have some form of commercial ties with its businesses.
A Myanmar human rights specialist with Fortify Rights welcomed the new information.
“This report is detrimental to both the military and the ‘cronies’ who have financial and economic ties with military. It is one step closer for the Western countries to impose sanctions against them,” Nickey Diamond told RFA.
Crimes against humanity
The mission members said they were concerned about justice being served.
“Officials of these companies should be investigated with a view to criminal prosecution for making substantial and direct contributions to the commission of crimes under international law, including crimes against humanity,” Sidoti said.
“Perhaps one of the most disturbing findings in our report is the way in which the military is actively soliciting donations from corporations to support its human-rights-violating efforts in Rakhine State against the Rohingya,” he said.
The report said at least 45 companies and organizations provided the Tatmadaw with U.S. $10.2 million in financial donations that were solicited in September 2017 by senior Tatmadaw leadership in support of the “clearance operations” that began in August 2017 against the Rohingya in northern Rakhine.
In a report filed in 2018, the three-member mission documented what it described as brutal violations of human rights against ethnic groups, including clearance operations against the Rohingya that began on Aug. 25, 2017.
That report alleged Myanmar security forces killed thousands of Rohingya civilians, raped and sexually abused women and girls, and burned their villages to the ground
More than 740,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine State and crossed into Bangladesh as a result of the military offensive that the United States and U.N. officials had described as “ethnic cleansing.”
The refugees who fled from Myanmar to sprawling camps in Bangladesh joined thousands who left the country due to previous episodes of violence, bringing the total number of Rohingya in the camps to 1.2 million.
The Rohingya have said they will not return to Myanmar unless they are granted full citizenship and given guarantees of safety in the country, which considers them illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, denies them citizenship and subjects them to systematic discrimination.
Kyaw Htoon Naing and Thet Su Aung of RFA’s Myanmar Service contributed to this report.